A Vietnamese family struggles for security as three decades of conflict tear an ancient society to shreds.
Pham, who in 1977 emigrated to California with his parents, won plaudits and awards for a memoir about his personal rediscovery of his heritage (Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Journey Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam, 1999). Now, he deftly recaptures the history of his father, Thong Van Pham. “I have lent his life stories my words,” the author explains. “The perspectives and sentiments within are his.” The scion of a family whose ancestral landholdings gave it almost feudal sway over its domain in the North, Thong was born into a traditional, clan-structured society that hung by a thread during decades of French colonial rule, interrupted by a savage World War II Japanese occupation that brought mass starvation to Southeast Asia. Though Thong took secret pride in Ho Chi Minh’s communist resistance fighters, who drove France from its Asian empire, communist rule brought even less security and comfort to the wealthy Phams than the degrading years of French imperial dominance, and in 1954 his father decreed that the family flee Hanoi for Saigon. In the south, Thong was able to pursue his education, court his first love (he married beneath his station, to his father’s disapproval) and begin building his own family. Then came “the American War.” Thong was drafted and survived deadly combat. He witnessed the fall of Saigon, was jailed and sent to a Viet Cong “reeducation” camp, from which he was eventually released through the intercession of a Party official, his wife’s uncle. War-torn as it was, a lost world lives again in Thong’s recollections of the passions of his life: food, friends, family, romance.
Personal tragedy and triumph, related with amazing perspective against an epic backdrop.